‘Strategic Ambiguity’ may work on China, but not Covid | Inquirer
Emil Amok!

‘Strategic Ambiguity’ may work on China, but not Covid

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic coordinator. REUTERS

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic coordinator. REUTERS

This week, we all got a lesson about the concept of “strategic ambiguity.”

That’s the strategy that says it’s sometimes helpful to speak out of both sides of your mouth.  Good for international diplomacy, perhaps. Just not for Covid policy.


I shall explain, and give you a way to develop your own data to help you make some important personal decisions.

But first, the global stage, where the nation’s No.1 American who leads Asian Americans, President Joe Biden, is making news by taking a somewhat extreme stand on China.

When he was asked at a news conference about the U.S.’s willingness to defend Taiwan militarily if China were to invade, there was not much hesitation on Biden’s part. “Yes,” he said, in Biden’s typical curt and blunt style.

When asked for clarification, the president said if Taiwan were taken by force , “it’s just not appropriate.” Meaning the taking by force. Military aid to Taiwan would be appropriate.

But reports say Biden’s aides went all bug-eyed when they heard the exchange since the prevailing U.S. position has been “strategic ambiguity.”   That’s the strategy of not committing one way or another in public in order to keep China guessing.

It keeps everyone else guessing too. And now since the Biden news conference his aides are walking back the “yes,” by saying nothing has changed in U.S. policy.

That’s like walking back to Washington from Asia.  It’s a long, mostly wet walk.

Does this help or hurt relations with China? Well, it makes the Taiwanese feel a little more secure that the U.S. is behind them.

And it should make the other Asian nations feel secure that when push comes to shove, as long as Biden is in there, there is no ambiguity.


China, of course, is furious. But what are they going to do? Cry on Putin’s shoulder? Stop sending items to Wal-Mart?

So give Biden some credit. He made people pay attention to his visit to Asia where he is laying out some economic proposals that are in such a nascent stage, it’s barely worth talking about.

But all the Taiwan talk should at least make the Philippines feel good about this Biden trip, where it’s barely a footnote. Remember when the PH was once elevated to status equal to Australia in 2003 after then President Macapagal Arroyo backed George W. Bush’s war Iraq mongering?

To hear Biden say the U.S. will defend Taiwan against invasion by China, may not have been “strategic,” but it sends a reassuring wink to the PH on China aggression.

Doesn’t work for covid

A flash of bluntness cuts through the ambiguity on China. Now what about Covid?

We can’t afford strategic ambiguity with Covid. Not after a million Americans have died.

That’s why I expected more from Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic coordinator. He is our guy. Normally a straight-shooter, Jha  was asked a straight question on PBS the other day about the pandemic.

The question from PBS: “If we’re in a position where we need to wear masks again indoors, do you think there is enough political will for lawmakers, elected officials, to make that case? And for the American people to actually listen?”

We could have used a “yes” to political will, and a “yes” to the personal will of Americans. That’s the kind of blunt and direct answer we haven’t had much of during the pandemic.

Instead this was Jha’s answer: “You know, people are tired of this pandemic. We understand that, unfortunately the virus is not done with its work.”

But before this can register, Jha goes on and answers in a way that doesn’t really answer the question.

“As we look to the fall and winter, what I’m paying attention to right now is

watching the virus evolve. We’ve got to pay very close attention to what happens if we do see a new wave of infections we want to be ready with a new generation of vaccines, treatments. I’ve always believed, Jeff, that masking is an important part of keeping infection numbers low. And I think we’re gonna want to get that message out to people that are in areas with high infection numbers. Masking is going to be an important tool to keeping infections low and getting letting us get through the fall and winter without substantial disruption.”

That was his answer. It’s nuanced  political speak. He could have answered simply, “Politicians better have the political will. And we should all have the personal will to mask if the political will fails.”

My first party in two years

I bring this up because I went to my first “party” this week. Fifty people or so, the majority of whom I didn’t know. But since they were mostly school teachers, most were vaxxed. It was outdoors.

But that’s not why I decided to finally leave my gong closet (where I do my micro-talk show) after two years and go someplace to be with people face-to-face.

I just felt it was time to be human again. Safely. I had a mask. But I held it in my hand. And not seeing anyone wear one, I put it in my pocket, where it stayed.

Why Emil????


No one ever talks about this one thing that gets to people during these semi-post-Covid times: social conformity to the group.

It was instinctive, and I hate it. Because I had stuck to my guns all throughout the pandemic, and now because I didn’t see another mask, I was just trying to fit in.

I was still distanced and outdoors. And I did spend some time with some friends I haven’t seen in two years.

But I regret my decision not to mask when I should have known better. With positivity rates rising from the BA2 variant, I should have thought about the one million who have died in the U.S.

I didn’t want to add to the list. And I should have thought of my old friend Corky Lee, the only person I know who died of Covid.

What I needed was my own data source to inform my personal choice and help me understand my risk. Hence, I have devised my Emil Amok five-question test on mask-wearing.

1) Are you vaxxed, boosted and symptom free? YES/NO

2) Are the majority in the gathering vaxed and boosted? YES/NO

3) Is proof of vaccination required for attendance?  YES/NO

4) Do you trust the word of guests/hosts?  (YES/NO)

5) Is it outdoors?   (YES/NO)

The more Yes votes, you go.

In this case, the NO’s won 3-2. Still, it’s close enough to go to the event. Just as long as I take my mask out of my pocket and put it on.

Even if the YES’s won, 3-2, it would be so close, I’d mask. I’d also probably add two other qualitative questions to help my decision.

6) Is it a once in a lifetime event? Y/N

7) Do I want to risk my life for this?  Y/N

These are the questions I use as a guide. Do I go to a wedding? A graduation? A reunion? A sporting event not a professional championship? You have your own list of these kind of events. Ask yourself the questions.

For me, even when I’m hell-bent on going to something, the questions give me some data to understand my personal will.

Politicians may lack political will, but I shouldn’t lack the personal will to do what’s right.

If I run through my questions, I know I won’t conform to shallow notions of appearance and peer pressure, a bigger problem than we all think.

Most of all, I will have given myself my own good reasons, my own data set,  to wear or not wear a mask.

So go ahead. Invite me to your party or event. I’ll put my test to the test. And try not to conform to the peer pressure of COVID-fatigue.

Remember, even Jha says the pandemic isn’t over. The virus still wants to do its thing.  It can do so without us, if we’re both smart and lucky.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes a column for the Inquirer’s North American Bureau.

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